Orlando Patterson is a Sociology professor who studies race, freedom, and slavery. He served as a special adviser for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley from 1972 to 1979 and has written several novels.
FM: You were born in Jamaica in 1940 and spent much of your upbringing in the town of May Pen. What was it like to grow up in Jamaica in that time?
OP: It was a poor little country town in a British colony at the end of an empire. And, it was not a prosperous town. It was surrounded by sugar plantations. In fact, it was the focal point, the market town for all the plantations and farms, little peasant farms around, which came alive at the weekend when the peasants came in to sell their stuff and then died on Saturday nights.
So that was my rather dreary beginnings, looking back.
FM: You described this picture of Jamaica, but do you recall one memory from your boyhood that you treasure?
OP: There was an extraordinary degree of freedom, which I had as a child growing up.
When you’re growing up in basically a rural area, especially in a poor country, kids are largely on their own. They go to school, come home, and then, I meet my parents and then I’m off. I go visit my friends, I roam around the bush, I go to the river.
The idea of a little kid going by themselves to the river would horrify the typical American parent. I mean, “What?” There are no lifeguards or anything, this is a river. This is my favorite spot, actually going to the river. And so there’s the kind of extreme freedom that you had as a child, which can be dangerous, but if you survive it, it can also be a good thing. It only builds independence.
I had a kind of mischievous sort of childhood. I would raid the mango trees of wealthier people who had these very fancy mangoes, not the common mangoes. Kind of a Huckleberry Finn sort of background.
The schooling was extremely limited. My school was just one lawn shed in which the classes were separated by an easel with a big blackboard. And each class size would have been about between 60 and 70 kids divided by an aisle.
Looking back, I don’t know how they got any teaching done, quite frankly.
But one way in which the teachers kept order was every teacher had a strap, a leather strap, and they were very liberal in whacking the kids if they talked too much.
FM: You have written extensively about the influence of cricket in Jamaica and other former British colonies. How would you describe cricket’s cultural and political significance?
OP: It was very powerful.
Jamaica, we also were very much involved with cricket more so then when I was growing up, than the situation now, where the sporting world in Jamaica, the focus has shifted from cricket to sprinting. Jamaica has become a world class country in sprinting. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up.
Jamaica is one of the few countries in which the preeminent sporting events are athletes running. All the schools compete and so on. The whole country turns up. It’s similar to the Super Bowl.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be a great cricketer. That was every schoolboy’s dream. Not so anymore. Now, every schoolboy wants to be Usain Bolt.
FM: Have you ever picked up a bat?
OP: Oh, everybody played.
Of course, it depends on what you call a bat. We had to make our own bat because cricket gear is very expensive. You made your own bat. You’d cut it out of wood or sometimes we use the ball of the coconut tree or dry ball. You knitted your own cricket ball.
You played obsessively during the holidays, on weekends. At school when you get a break, recess, you head for the little pitch, which is just a dust strip.
FM: Do you see any similarities between your students at Harvard and what you were like as an undergraduate?
OP: No, not much.
When I went to college, at the University of the West Indies, it was a young university then, it was only about 10 years old.
It was based on the British system, so we went around in gowns. Undergraduates had to wear red gowns to lectures.
We were politically extremely engaged in a way in which students here are not. I mean, we were coming of age as the West Indies was coming of age. So, I like to point out that I graduated in 1962, which is the same year that Jamaica graduated to independence.
It is a very intense movement, historically — a great deal of expectation about becoming free politically, but also being able to determine our own economic, social and cultural destiny. And we were among the earliest generation of university students. When I went to college, less than 1 percent of the population went to college.
FM: You graduated from the University of the West Indies in 1962 with a degree in economics. By 1965, you earned your Ph.D. in sociology from the London School of Economics where you wrote your thesis “Sociology of Slavery.” What motivated this interest in researching slavery academically?
OP: That came naturally. Growing up, as I mentioned, I was surrounded by sugarcane plantations. My little town was the center of the plantation system.
Plantation culture was all around you. And the sugar plantation was the scene of the great tragedy of slavery. Jamaica was a slave society for hundreds of years from when Columbus discovered it in 1492 and started to enslave the Indians, right through the coming of African slavery, to the British conquest of the island in 1655, and then large-scale slavery.
Most of our history was in condition of slavery.
FM: In your 1982 book “Slavery and Social Death,” you mention that what distinguishes slavery from other oppressive systems is this idea of social death: the denial of humanity and participation in society. You also mention that it exists to some extent today, so where do we see remnants of social death today?
OP: I should clear one thing up. There is a movement among some Black intellectuals, Afro-pessimism, they call themselves, who have taken up the idea argue that it exists today. I don’t hold that view. I think this is too extreme a view. I think that there are consequences of slavery, which persist today.
Segregation, I see as, in many ways, one of the most important consequences of slavery. What is essential to the idea of social death is that the slave did not belong to the society, has no place in the society. It’s just incredible that America should still have such a high level of segregation. The idea of not living with the Blacks, even in spite of all the many changes, still exists. And I see that going straight back to the notion of natal alienation, the fact that the slave does not belong.
FM: One quote in particular from your book “Freedom in the Making of Western Culture” stands out to me: “I had gone in search of a man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom,” you write. What influenced this shift from an investigation of social death to one of freedom?
OP: Freedom is not, as almost all philosophers seem to think, and famously in Locke’s view, written in the hearts of men.
This is a mutual construction, I think. But, no group of people are more obsessed with their freedom than slaveholders. And no group of people are more desirous of their freedom than slaves.
FM: As much as you have work that is purely academic, you also have written a few fiction novels, namely “The Children of Sisyphus,” “An Absence of Ruins,” and “Die the Long Day.” How does your approach to fiction writing differ from your academic process?
OP: I was always involved with exploring the world, both as a sociologist, but also, I felt that there are limits of social science that I couldn’t really express in a sociological treatise or an economics model, which I thought I could best explore through fiction, understanding the world.
Something major happened while I was at college. It was a critical period in the growth of the Rastafarian movement in Jamaica.
They were going back to Africa. They sang about it, but they believed it, and they believed the Emperor would come and take them back. A large number of them gathered in Kingston on the shores of the slums there, under a man called Claudius Henry, who was a kind of millenarian leader, and are waiting for the ship to come with the Emperor.
So as an undergraduate studying sociology with anthropologists, I had to get involved with this.
So I was down there waiting with them for the Emperor. And my original idea is that I do a sociological treatise on this, but I said, “Nah, there’s no way I could capture that in a dry sociological text.” So, I turned to fiction.
FM: You served as a special adviser for Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley from 1972 to 1979. What is something people get wrong about working in public service?
OP: They were trying to introduce a democratic socialist revolution. It didn’t quite work, and it scared the hell out of the Americas. I don’t know how they let me back into the country cause I used to go back and forth. They were suspicious of what I was up to because I’d go between Harvard and Jamaica.
Manley and Castro fell in love, I mean, they loved each other. They’re both very charismatic. There are only 90 miles away from Cuba to Jamaica, so they said, “What the hell, let’s get together.” They just adored each other. And that just scared the hell out of the CIA. And so we had a hard time, a pretty hard time. I don’t know all the details. But you know, a lot of the violence that emerged is part of the kind of underhand things which were done to destabilize the country.
It is a strange kind of existence, but was fascinating. I got things done. Not everything succeeded, and the overall plan to take the country towards a democratic socialist system collapsed for economic reasons.
I am now involved again, this time with a major project — total transformation of the education system of Jamaica.
FM: What motivates you to work in public service?
OP: That’s why I got into academia. I didn’t get into academia just for the scholarship, although I love scholarship, and I have written a lot of pure scholarship in my work on freedom. But, my work was motivated by the need to understand Jamaica, Jamaican society, its problems, its violence, its economy.
FM: What is one thing you’ve always wanted to study that is totally unrelated to your field?
OP: At one point in my life, I agonized between whether I should go into literature and fiction or sociology. Three of my first four books were novels, and they were quite successful.
The thing about sociology is that it covers the same subjects as fiction. You are writing about people, but you are thinking about relationships in a more generalized way when you are doing sociology and fiction is extremely individualized: it’s character-based and so on. It’s two kinds of modes of thinking, which is very hard to bring together.
I had to make a choice.
I don’t say I have great regret, but I do wonder sometimes what might’ve been. Eliot said, “What might’ve been is an abstraction,” so forget it.
FM: If you could choose one song to encapsulate your life so far, what would it be?
OP: There’s a famous Bob Marley song about the “Three Little Birds.”
The only time I’ve been to the gardens to see a baseball game, whenever the pressure is on and the Red Sox seem to be losing, the entire Boston audience — which is not the most liberal in the world — would break out into this: “Don’t worry about a thing ’cuz everything will be all right.” What the heck?
I love it because I played a lot with birds when I was growing up.
I’d see in my window these little birds.
They’re very cute and they’re relatively tame, but you could never catch them. So, I love that song because it reminds me so much of growing up but it is very powerful.
My favorite politically-tuned song was “By the Rivers of Babylon.” That’s the song I hear myself singing a lot.
It’s a famous Rastafarian song, and it was a big hit in Jamaica for a long time.
It’s a very powerful sign adopted by the Rastas from a hymn I think. It reflects their own sadness, their own sense of exile, their own sense of wanting to go somewhere, Zion. But, at the same time, knowing that you know they’re fixed here in Jamaica.
It so captures the unwanted, the despair, the hope, and the tragedy of being poor in a poor country.
So those are the two. One is full of hope. One is also about hope, but despair.
FM: Of all the places you have lived and studied, which is your favorite?
OP: Cambridge, Mass.
It’s the best balance. It’s a great little town.
FM: Who are some thinkers who have influenced you?
OP: It started with Camus, which I started reading in high school. I didn’t understand a word. I picked up “The Myth of Sisyphus” in the library, and I don’t know how it got there.
I read it and read it and read it right through my undergrad. It was like a Bible — just sort of constantly going back to it.
Camus, Sartre in the literary tradition. In terms of writing fiction too, I was deeply influenced by several realist novelists, so I love Zola, Émile Zola.
In sociology, of course, my models, there were four people: Weber, Du Bois, C.L.R. James — sort of Marxist philosopher, historian, sociologist, and Eric Williams, this great historian I mentioned earlier who became a statesman. He was a classic model for me, a scholar who came back and led his country to independence and was its first prime minister.
I also have a love-hate relationship with V.S. Naipaul, a great writer, but he was a self loathing Indian man, Indian West Indian. He was weird, but he was a genius. You think someone’s a genius, but you think he’s an asshole. I read everything he wrote and so on, so I’m sure he influenced me, but he’s a bastard.
— Magazine writer Sammy Duggasani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sammyduggasani.